A few thoughts from SBE

State Board calls for testing cutbacks

After chewing on the issue for much of the summer and fall, the State Board of Education Thursday issued a letter calling for cutting state standardized testing to federal minimum requirements and for other changes in the assessment system.

The letter was sent to the Standards and Assessments Task Force, a 15-member appointed group that is developing recommendations on testing for the 2015 legislative session.

During meetings stretching back to August, when 2014 TCAP results were released, board members have clearly indicated that they wanted to add their collective voice to the flow of comment being considered by the task force.

The board’s letter adds to the rising drumbeat of discontent about state testing, which has steadily expanded in recent years with the addition of school readiness and early literacy evaluations, new online science and social studies tests and additional high school tests, including the first assessments for seniors.

Things will change even more dramatically next spring when the first online PARCC tests in language arts and math will be given statewide.

The letter, signed by all seven board members, said, “We ask that the task force give consideration to a system of assessments which is reduced to the federal minimums, with the addition of social studies.” It also suggested a testing system that has limited impact on instructional time, considers sampling systems instead of testing every student every years, allows local district choice of tests and exempts students from further testing if they’ve demonstrated mastery of academic content.

“The board is keenly aware of the public’s concerns around the burdens imposed on educators, students, and districts – the impacts on instructional time, questions around transparency, unintended consequences related to course sequencing, and interruption of concurrent enrollment programs. By providing our observations to the 1202 Task Force, we continue that dialogue,” the letter said.

Board chair Paul Lundeen told Chalkbeat Colorado that the letter represents “a gathering of thoughts and ideas that have been talked about for months.” He said the board discussed the letter during its meeting last week and considered talking about it further in December but decided “we needed to get it out immediately so that the task force would have it.”

The task force has only two more scheduled meetings, on Dec. 16 and Jan. 12, before it has to make its report to lawmakers. (The 2014 law that established the group allows the task force to prepare majority and minority reports if it chooses.)

Several task force members are believed to favor cutting the testing system back to federal minimums, although the group hasn’t yet developed detailed drafts of proposals.

Colorado requires more testing, both of additional subjects and in additional grades, than is mandated by the federal NCLB law. Some of those additional tests have been required by the wave of education bills passed by the legislature since 2008.

The issue of federal minimums was discussed at length during the board’s September meeting, when members received an extensive briefing by Department of Education staff. That report indicated cutting back could have unintended consequences, particularly on the operation of the state’s model for tracking student academic growth over time. (See this story for details.)

Testing, including test results and growth data, are key to the state’s systems for rating schools and districts and for the education evaluation system, which is yet to be rolled out fully.

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.